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Pearce, Townsend meet with Forest Service officials, ranchers in Cloudcroft to illustrate industry hardships in face of most recent endangered species closures
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, left, speaks to U.S. Forest Service staff as ranchers Kelly and Spike Goss, and State Rep. Jim Townsend, far right, listen. (Courtesy Photo)

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, left, speaks to U.S. Forest Service staff as ranchers Kelly and Spike Goss, and State Rep. Jim Townsend, far right, listen. (Courtesy Photo)

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and State Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, travelled to Cloudcroft Thursday to advocate for area ranchers with the goal of providing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) with a first-hand look at how restrictions on water rights affect the industry and the state’s economy.

Both emerged optimistic their concerns, and the voices of New Mexico’s ranchers, were finally heard.

Though both Pearce and Townsend stressed the issue has been ongoing for many years, it reached a “tipping point,” Townsend said, with the recent closure of portions of the Lincoln National Forest to protect habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

The legislators, along with members of the U.S. Forest Service, met with ranchers Spike and Kelly Goss in the Penasco Pens electrified fencing area in the Sacramento Ranger District to discuss potential solutions to ranchers’ concerns over grazing allotments and restrictions to water access points that resulted from the closure.

Pearce told the Daily Press Thursday the meeting, which lasted approximately three-and-a-half hours, was positive overall.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the outcome from it all,” Pearce said. “I think we will be able to reach an agreement where the ranchers will be given enough flexibility to do their work and stay in business, and also preserve the habitat.

“There is literally no way to make a living if these restrictions continue to stay in place.”

Townsend, along with fellow area legislators Yvette Harrell, Candy Spence Ezzell, Bob Wooley, Gay Kernan, Carroll Leavell, Cathrynn Brown and David Gallegos drafted a letter signed by 50 lawmakers that petitioned the state engineer and Gov. Susana Martinez to “take a more aggressive role in protecting New Mexico water rights from, in this case, federal government overreach, for lack of a better word.”

“For more than 10 years, the ranchers up there have been trying to work cooperatively with the Forest Service on these water issues, and it’s been, to be real honest, one of those deals where a few little ranchers and the federal government met, and the little guy didn’t get a fair shake,” Townsend said. “So all the legislators came together, and we had been pushing back on the federal government and our state government to get them to protect these guys, because there’s nothing more important in New Mexico than water.

“If your water rights aren’t valid and they’re not worth anything, we have real problems. And if the federal government can just come in and take people’s water away without due process, we have real problems in New Mexico.”

Both Pearce and Townsend pointed out the Forest Service hasn’t spotted mouse activity near the streams affected in the most recent closure and blocked some areas due simply to their habitat potential. Pearce said the legislators asked the service to provide its findings on the subject.

“We need to make real decisions based on real science,” Pearce said. “I’m asking the Forest Service, our office, and the ranchers to produce their idea of agreements and the things that still need work after today’s meeting. Our office will correlate all of these, we will continue talking via conference calls, and we will keep this thing moving until we have reached a final solution.”

The Forest Service reiterated Thursday a need to keep the mouse’s habitat low-intensity in terms of livestock and wildlife traffic in order to facilitate the recovery of the species but agreed to do what it could to meet the ranchers halfway.

The closure order, issued in early May, included portions of Agua Chiquita, Silver Springs, Rio Penasco and Wills Canyon and is in effect until Oct. 31 of this year and from May 1 – Oct. 31, 2017, after which time the Forest Service plans to conduct further analysis of the species.

Violations of the closure order were listed as $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for organizations, imprisonment of up to six months, or both.

Pearce says the service agreed to reposition the location of fences today or Monday.

“For the first time in my 12 years of working on these issues, we’re seeing a significant attempt to find a balance point, and I think that’s extraordinarily powerful and important,” said Pearce. “Everyone is afraid the economy is going to be choked up by these constrictive regulations. I’m saying, ‘Let’s solve these issues; let’s get it done.’”

Townsend was also ultimately pleased with the outcome of the meeting.

“Yesterday, for the first time, the Forest Service began to realize and began to meet us halfway,” he said. “Jim Upchurch (forest supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service) was there yesterday from Washington, and for the first time, I saw someone from the Forest Service get it. He started understanding the issues, and he understood that those allotment owners had property rights.

“A lot of promises were made, and probably the most important promise was to cooperatively work with ranchers going forward and to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. I’m confident that with Mr. Upchurch being there, we will see action in the near future, and Yvette and I are really proud that we were able to work with Congressman Pearce to get this done. We look forward to the governor and the state engineer taking a more vocal role in protecting these waters.”

“State Rep. Jim Townsend is taking a lead in this,” said Pearce.” His inputs are very good, and he’s holding everyone accountable in order to protect his constituents. I appreciate his presence.”

Townsend stressed the agricultural industry contributes approximately $4 billion annually to the state’s economy.

“It’s not chump change,” he said. “They’re a significant contributor to our economy and tax base, and when you take water and forage away from those guys, they have less cows, and when they have less cows, they pay less taxes.”